I've needed to write this post for a couple of months, but I've held off. Despite my frequent use of sarcasm, I'm generally an optimist, and I generally give people and companies the benefit of the doubt. Especially companies selling online; I know how hard it is, I know that they're trying. But enough already. I have spent more time on the phone with the customer service departments of online retailers this spring than any other time in my online ordering life. I've been buying online enthusiastically for as long as I've been able; probably around 15 years. Usually, things go well. So well, in fact that my expectations (and probably those of all consumers) have been raised to a level where nothing but fast, accurate and friendly execution just won't do. And rightly so. But maybe online retailers have (dare I say) slipped and let a few of the important fundamentals slide through the cracks?
Here's a quick litany of this spring's e-commerce experiences.
The cat food that turned into dog food. My cats have discriminating taste and managed to fall in love with a hard to find food. I found it online at one of the major online pet supply stores. Ordered 5 cases. Got all 5 cases of cat food PLUS a pallet sized shipment of multiple cases of dog food. How's that for a gift with purchase? It weighed a ton. Instead of shipping it back to the company, I donated it to a local animal shelter. Some good should come of this.
The cat beds that made me lose sleep. The cats outgrew their cat beds. I searched online at several sites for the right color/size replacement beds. I finally found them at pet site I had never heard of, but the site seemed reputable enough, had a prominent 800# all over the site, plenty of promises about their great customer service. Ok, I ordered. I got an initial email confirming my order. A week goes by. Another week goes by. And another. I check my "order status" on the website. No information. No indication that the beds are on backorder or that they've shipped. Radio silence. In the 3rd week, I call customer service. I am on hold for over 15 minutes. The line is scratchy and playing a radio station so full of static I can't tell if it's music or talk. I give up and call back a couple of hours later. Same thing. I give up and call back the next day. At last, a voice. A nice guy informs me that the beds are to be dropped shipped from their supplier and that he "thinks" they will be going out this week. But, he says that should call back if I don't see them by next week. Ok, so now it's MY job to track this order and be sure it arrives? The following week, no beds. I call. Same static ridden phone line. I hold, and hold and hold. I give up. I call back a couple of hours later. I hold. I hold. I hold. At last, a voice. He "thinks" they will ship next week. I explain that I was told the same thing last week. He suggests I call back by the end of the week if I have not seen the beds. I explain that every time I call I am on hold for an eternity listening to static. He advises that I call during the hours of 10am and Noon Pacific time when they are "not so busy". Delightful. Now I'm fitting into their schedule. "Will there be a tracking number sent to me when the beds ship?" I ask. "Probably not", he answers, "since it's a drop ship order". I go to their website again. That cheery 800# is still placed all over the site encouraging me to call anytime. Right. Another 2 weeks later, the beds arrive. My cats are happy. I am so exhausted, I could curl up in one of them myself.
The (human) bedding that got tossed and turned around. It was time to order new sheets, a bed skirt and comforter cover (this time for me, not the cats). I ordered from a well-known and reputable home furnishings company. About 2 weeks go by, no sign of my order. I go to the website to check my order status. It reads "order not found". I call the customer service number. At least this time someone answers. Fortunately, I have my confirmation email and can provide an order number. I explain that the website says the order does not exist. "Oh" say the voice on the phone, "we switched systems so the website is not accurate". Nice. How about an email to let me know? "Well", she says, "I show that there was an attempted delivery for your order last Saturday, but no one was there to receive it." Well, of course not. I had it delivered to my husband's office, and there's no one there on Saturday. I check with him and he says there was no attempted delivery notice. What now? It's now the following Thursday and no sign of this order. "Well," she says, "you need to contact your local post office to schedule another delivery". I swear I am not making this up. "Can you give me some sort of tracking number or shipment number or something?" I ask. "No" she says. Miraculously, the next day the package arrives at my husband's office. But, the bed skirt ($30) is missing from the package, even though the packing list says it is in the box. I decide to donate $30 to this company and avoid yet another lengthy and painful series of phone calls.
The patio furniture that went on a cruise. The deck furniture that I bought over 10 years ago is in need of replacement. It's showing its age and starting to rust in the Seattle rain belt. I receive an amazing, gorgeous catalog from a company I've always admired on heavy, luxurious paper showing me some of the most beautiful outdoor furniture sets imaginable. My husband and I are enchanted. We go online, select a table, chairs, chaise, side table, bar table and stools and a set of cushions for all. It's a major purchase (I'm talking thousands here), hit the "submit order" button and anxiously await our new "major purchase". I receive an email telling me that I will "soon" be getting an email confirming the delivery details. The email even tells me to be on the watch for further information regarding my order. There's a link to where I can track my order online. I am encouraged. I get busy, my husband gets busy. We realize that 3 weeks have gone by. No follow up email from the company with the gorgeous catalog. No furniture. Both the email and the website show a prominent 800# to call. I call. The call instantly goes to a recording that says "Thanks for calling" (no mention of the NAME of the company)," to place an order, press 1, to inquire about an existing order, press 2". I press 2. The phone rings, and rings, and rings, and rings. Dead silence for about 45 seconds. Then a dial tone. Odd. I call back. I press 2 again. Rinse and repeat, same story. I double check and triple check the number. I am actually worried. I give up for the day. I call back the next day. I get a nice guy who says "hi, thanks for calling" but again, no NAME of the company I ordered from. I ask about the status of my order. I tell him that that the web site says "pending fulfillment", which it has said for weeks and I've gotten no email, no indication of where my order might be. He tells me to hold. I hear the thwack of the keyboard in the background. "Ok", he finally says, "it looks like the cushions for this furniture had to be made custom, but you should be seeing it arrive towards the end of the week". I ask for a tracking number. No dice. "If you don't see things start to come through in a week or so, give us a call back." I am sure you can guess what happens next. Ten days go buy. No merchandise. The credit card bill arrives. I call again. This time, I do get a person to answer the phone on the first try. She seems genuinely concerned. I explain that I have a bill for thousands of dollars but no merchandise and no communication about the whereabouts of this order. She thwacks at the keyboard. "I'm going to need to call the warehouse about this" she says. Can I call you back?" Of course. About an hour later, she calls to let me know (and I am not making this up) that she "tried to call both the warehouse and the order processing department and everyone's so busy that they won't pick up the phone. I've left email and voicemail and no one has gotten back to me. I'll call you when I know something." I look around for the candid camera signs. About 3 hours later, I get a voicemail that the "container was late, the goods are in customs, should clear by the end of next week", which means the possibility of seeing them the week after. No tracking number, no reassurance. As I write this, I am still uncertain.
- The doormat that took over the earth. I needed a new doormat to go in front of my French doors. Easy enough. I found a terrific website (a division of a much larger terrific website) that offered hundreds of choices in size and pattern. I found the perfect one and ordered it. Simple, $50 transaction. Good follow up emails, letting me know my order was received and confirming shipment. At this point I'm thinking that maybe this time things will go flawlessly. Wrong. My husband calls. "What the hell did you order?" he says. "There's a giant rug here that hardly fits in my office." My "doormat" arrived in the disguise of a full blown rug, 6 feet X 9 feet. I checked my order confirmation. I ordered a 2X3 mat. I called the customer service number. Fortunately the woman who answered was helpful and apologetic. We had a good laugh about the giant rug. The correct rug is on the way (or so I have been told). As for the giant rug, it's still waiting disposition. Apparently "someone will call to arrange to have it picked up". Rug company, I'll give you a week, and if no one calls, it's going on EBay.
So perhaps I'm just having a bad streak with online retailers. Or maybe we need to take a step back here. From my perspective, this spring was not our finest hour. For all of the press about the success of e-commerce, the exciting developments in mobile and multi-channel wizardry, there are obviously still opportunities to buckle down and get the fundamentals right. All of the above online retailers had good, functional websites. All of them touted reliability and service on their sites. All of them had prominent 800#s on every page. A couple of them even sent me very nice catalogs encouraging me to visit their website and buy online. But, as my experiences above illustrate, the lack of actual accurate timely delivery of the product, proactive communication on the status of an order and available, knowledgeable customer service representatives can cause the experience to crumble in the dust. I remain a passionate enthusiast of buying online….but what about the average customer who doesn't make her living from e-commerce? Would she tolerate the experiences above?
E-commerce executives: do yourselves a favor and buy something off of your own websites. Document your experience start to finish. Are you getting the fundamentals right, start to finish? You might be surprised. I certainly was.